Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bath — Circus and Crescent

The neoclassical beauty that makes Bath one of Britain's most beautiful cities is largely due to two architects: John Wood, the Elder, and John Wood, the Younger. The elder Wood was born in a suburb of Bath in 1704. He set out to create a "new Rome," a planned and unified city designed with neoclassical architecture. Many of the large-scale  architectural features of the city parks, squares, parades, hospitals, and so on were planned and/or designed by Wood, the elder.

His masterpiece is the Circus, an inward-facing circle of townhouses inspired by the Coliseum in Rome. Decorated with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian capitals on the pillars, the main door of each house was made large enough to allow the owners' sedan chairs to be carried straight inside without having to pause outside.

Aerial view of the Circus in Bath. The Crescent is one block away following the road leading off to the upper right.
Circus in Bath
Quiet morning on the Circus in Bath.
Strolling around the Circus in Bath
As you can see in Bath's Fashion Museum, the ladies needed extra wide sidewalks to accommodate their dresses.
Between the ground and first floor there's a frieze of pictorial emblems. These include nautical symbols, serpents, symbols of science, and Freemasonry images.

Frieze of pictorial emblems on the Circus
The frieze above the ground floor includes 525 images.
There are decorations above the second floor, as well:

Frowning visages on the Circus in Bath
Frowning visages look askance at passersby.
Besides the floors above ground, the townhouses also enjoy sunken gardens in front, some more deep than others:

Sunken garden in the Circus
I suspect that the owners of this townhouse have built a room underneath their garden.
Extra deep sunken garden in the Circus
This garden is at least twice as deep as the garden pictured above.
For those of you counting at home, there are at least five floors to these houses one below ground, three main floors, and a servants' attic above.

Circus homes are five stories tall
Those little circular windows at the top were for the servants.
Construction of the Circus began in 1754, the same year John Wood, the Elder, died. It was completed by his son, John Wood, the Younger, in 1768. Trained by his father as an architect, the younger Wood spent his life expanding upon his father's vision, connecting some of his father's isolated sites with wide neoclassical boulevards, and helping to create an entire section of the city in the neoclassical (known in England as "Georgian") style.

For example, he built the grand Assembly Rooms which served as public gathering spaces for the aristocracy to play games, hold concerts and dances, and avoid grubbier public houses (i.e., pubs) where they might have to mingle with the lower classes. The rooms are generally symmetrical and feature high windows to provide privacy for those within.

Assembly Rooms in Bath
The Germans bombed these rooms during World War II so everything is a reconstruction except for the chandeliers, which are original.
Octagonal room in the Assembly Rooms
Octagonal room. Chairs apparently set out for an epidemic of wallflowers.
The younger Wood's greatest achievement is the Crescent, a block away from the Circus. At the time it was built, it was on the edge of town and faced out into the countryside. Started in 1767 and finished in 1774, the Crescent contains 30 houses or, at least, 30 house facades, but some of the houses have been combined on the interior. When building the Crescent, the buyers of the homes purchased a section of the front and then built their house behind the facade, which means the Crescent is uniformly sweeping in front but has a varied and irregular back.

Aerial view of the Crescent in Bath. Note the irregular backs of the homes, contrasting with the uniform front.
The facade of the Crescent is simpler than the Circus, with only Ionic columns and no friezes or other statuary. It is widely considered to be one of the best examples of Georgian architecture and has been imitated in various cities across England.

The Crescent under rehab in Bath
Several of the houses were undergoing rehab when we visited.
Crescent in Bath, England
Can you spot Kate and Jackson in this photo? (Good luck.)
At the center of the Crescent, behind the red construction (and the green shrubbery somehow allowed to overwhelm the facade), is the Royal Crescent Hotel. If you're pretty and smile nicely like me {Ed.'s note: It assuredly was not for Brian, but rather for Kate.}, they'll let you walk through and peek into the back of the crescent and perhaps stop for some tea.

Interior of the Royal Crescent Hotel
Inside the Royal Crescent Hotel.
Rear view of the Royal Crescent Hotel
A view of the garden/restaurant seating. The rear of the Royal Crescent Hotel is in the background.
Tourist-site cat
Behind the hotel, one of the many tourist-site cats we encountered in southwest England.
Unlike the inward-facing Circus and other sites designed by Wood, the Elder, the younger Wood designed the Crescent to be open and outward-facing. An expansive lawn fades downhill from the Crescent and is now much used as a spot for picnics or pickup football matches.

Upper lawn of the Crescent, above the "ha-ha" wall
The upper part of the lawn is reserved for the homeowners on the Crescent. They're not that welcoming to the hoi polloi.
Dividing the upper and lower lawns is a "ha-ha" wall. From the lower side of the lawn, the ground slopes down into a ditch, with a stone retaining wall holding up the upper lawn. The wall is invisible from the Crescent, leaving an illusion of an uninterrupted lawn. Even from the lower lawn the wall is hard to see until you get fairly close. In times past, the ditch was steeper and the wall was higher. It had good use for when sheep and other livestock might graze on the lower lawn, but were prevented by the wall from munching on the upper lawn and getting too close to the houses. Not coincidentally, the wall kept peasants and other lesser folk from visiting.

Ha-ha wall of the Crescent in Bath
Jackson giggled a "ha-ha" at the wall, trying to climb it and throwing a ball onto the forbidden land.
We visited the Crescent at least three times during our weekend stay in Bath. It was only a couple of blocks from our bed and breakfast, and the jovial open space was great for burning off toddler energy. Jackson even helped organize the grass clippings.

Playing on the lawn of the Crescent
I crush them! Kaboom!
Grass clippings
More must be added to this magnificent pile.

Next post will move us into Bath's modern era.

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